Your Best Candidate Is Less Than Three Degrees of Separation Away

At my Talent Connect 2017 talk in Nashville on October 5th, I’m going to prove that I can find top tier candidates within a few days for any job using proactive networking. But I need to have some examples to demonstrate the methodology first. So I decided to hold a webcast on August 17th (2017) to preview the program and get some of your hiring challenges into the mix.

Here’s the idea…

Why referrals are “Recruiter’s Gold”

Long before Kevin Bacon, some brilliant math folks discovered that in a structured social network like LinkedIn, you were only three degrees of separation away from anyone. This is shown in the graphic.

My recruiting philosophy is to spend more time with fewer more highly qualified prospects who have been referred to me. As important, I proactively seek out referrals of people who would naturally see my open job as a clear career opportunity without much initial convincing.

This is important to get high response rates from your emails and phone calls. For example, for a search for a Controller for a mid-size company, we looked for “big four” CPAs who were currently directors of accounting at bigger companies. The first line in the email said, “Get out of the numbers and make a difference.” This approach worked very well, but when I put the referrer’s name in the email everyone called back vs. about 35%. That’s part of why referred candidates are golden – they call you back! While this is important, the more important part of this is that I only sent emails and made phone calls to people who were highly qualified.

To start getting the referrals, I first called up people I knew who would have worked with these types of people in the past. For the CPA search, this was easy since I had plenty of first degree connections in senior accounting roles. So I just connected with a few and asked, “Who’s the best person you know doing this type of work?” This generated a few target names.

Recruiters who are specialists in a field have this obvious advantage, but many recruiters are generalists, so they must build these first-degree connections on a just-in-time basis. In these situations, and as part of preparing a Candidate Persona (FYI: this is like a marketing plan describing how to find and attract your ideal candidate), I suggest that recruiters ask this question first: “Who would have worked with my ideal candidate and could provide a strong referral?”

For a national accounts manager search for a company distributing power tools, I called the buyers at Home Depot and Lowe’s to get names of top sales people. For a VP engineering search, I connected with managers in similar industries and asked who the best boss they ever had was and would like to work for again.

We helped a big electronics manufacturing company dramatically expand its employee referral program using a similar reverse networking concept. We just suggested that recruiters first use LinkedIn to search for and connect with employees they don’t know but who would have worked with their ideal candidate. Since you can search on your first-degree connections’ connections using LinkedIn Recruiter, it’s easy to find a few top candidates on your own, then just ask your new connection if the person is strong and if you can use the new connection’s name as a referrer.

Convert strangers into acquaintances

Building a network of first-degree connections who would have worked with your ideal candidate is the big point here. But you can’t wait passively for them to refer people to you. Instead, you need to proactively search on their connections to get some great referrals.

There’s a philosophical point in all this. Recognize that when you contact a stranger there is a wall of distrust that you must first break. If you’re successful, you then need to get the person interested in your job, and if so, qualify the person based on their skills, experiences, title, responsibility, compensation needs and location. I consider screening people like this not only a waste of time, but also disrespectful. It’s certainly not recruiting.

However, by saying, “Mary Jones suggested I contact you about a potential career move,” you’re more likely to have a totally different and more open conversation. As important, you wouldn’t have called the person unless Mary Jones thought the person was highly qualified and a good fit for the job. Now all you have to do in the next 10-15 minutes is convince the person your job is a potential career move. If not, connect with the person on LinkedIn and get some other referrals by searching on the person’s first-degree connections.

This type of rich and in-depth career discussion is not possible when the focus of the first call is largely about screening out strangers. It’s almost impossible when the strangers are passive candidates.

None of these problems exist when the person has been referred. Initial conversations with these second-degree weak connections are similar to those with acquaintances, so the discussion is more open and honest. Rather than screening out people, you’re just having a natural conversation about the possibility your open job represents a true career move. That’s why I advocate a go-slow process, spending more time with fewer highly qualified people. Getting connected to these fewer highly qualified people is what real recruiting is all about and why these referrals are called “Recruiter’s Gold.”

Why Screening Candidates for Growth Potential Will Make You a Better Recruiter

When looking to fill a role, recruiters sometimes screen out candidates based on shorthand they have developed over the years. The trouble is that this shorthand can be wrong.

For example, in a recent post I talked about a recruiter who told me she didn’t want to talk to candidates who didn’t fit in the salary range, saying it was a waste of her time. She didn’t know that the purpose of the call was both a networking call and a recruiting call. Transactional recruiters think filling a job fast based on price and skills is the end game. Solution-based recruiters think the end game is finding a great candidate who sees the job as a career move.

Instead of screening candidates out based on things like salary, my focus has always been on spending more time with fewer people. That’s how I save time. I also contend that the best candidates are either those you know personally or weak connections. These are the connections of the people you know who have been referred to you. They’re the best because they always call you back and they’re always qualified. You wouldn’t call them otherwise.

It takes about 10 minutes to develop a relationship with these weak connections. After developing the relationship – and if the person is qualified – I discuss compensation. If the job truly represents a career opportunity, the compensation is always negotiable. However, if it is beyond a reasonable range I then ask the person who is the best person she/he ever worked with who would see this job as an opportunity. This is not a waste of time. This is what networking is all about and why it represents how the best people get hired.

After sourcing through referrals or connections, the most important criteria or “shorthand” for me is whether or not a candidate has potential to grow in a role and at a company.

How to determine if a candidate has potential to grow

To determine whether a candidate has growth potential, ask them how they’ve gotten better in each of their last few jobs. If they say by being more efficient raise the caution flag. If the person says it’s by improving the process find out how they improved the process. A manufacturing engineer told me how he led the installation of an automated assembly line that had a return on investment of more than 300% and a cost savings that resulted in payback in four years. A controller told me how she implemented a new budgeting system that allowed each department head to predict their operating expenses 3-6 months in advance. As a result the company learned how to control expenses before they were even incurred.

If that same manufacturing engineer told me he was focused totally on making the existing bad process more efficient, I would be concerned about the his upward growth potential. The same is true if the same controller was just getting the outdated budgeting process prepared more efficiently.

I haven’t quite figured out the human learning aspects of all this yet but I suspect personal growth has to do with a person’s ability to see the bigger picture. This is the impact of the person’s work rather than just the work itself. It seems that when this big picture gets a bit fuzzy personal growth begins to slow down. I suspect this slowdown isn’t permanent, though. Mentors, coaches, teachers and managers who have a different perspective on the world can enable these people to clarify their fuzzy thinking and move to a new level of performance.

Here’s a simple test recruiters and hiring managers can do to determine if you’re putting a lid on the quality of the candidates you’re seeing. First, define the job as a series of performance objectives rather than a list of skills. Then post an ad like this one from Veon Telecomm in Amsterdam and see what happens.

Don’t be surprised that within a few days you start seeing stronger candidates. That’s the power of improving the impact of what you’re doing rather than being more efficient doing what you’re doing.

4 Steps to Eliminate First Impression Bias and Hire the Right Candidate

First impression bias is the primary cause of most hiring mistakes. Why? Because when we feel good about someone right away, we tend to ask easier question. And, when we feel negative right way, we ask more difficult questions. In other words, we (often subconsciously) look to confirm our first impression.

This is the primitive friend vs. foe reaction taking place every day in the interviewing room. As a result of focusing on the candidate's presentation over their performance, we often hire people who underperform and avoid hiring people with weaker presentation skills who are top performers. This double negative impact is summarized in the grid below.

So, how do you fix this? Start by switching the decision process from presentation to performance. In this case, the red arrow is horizontal rather than pointing down. You’ll be amazed at how simple it is to make this change, and how important. Here’s how you do it:

1. Script the opening of the interview to increase objectivity

When starting an interview, don’t make a yes or no hiring decision for at least 30 minutes. This overcomes the tendency to ask people we like questions to falsely confirm their ability and people we don’t like questions to falsely prove their incompetence. The Appendix to The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired has a complete set of sample scripts that cover the first 30-60 minutes of the interview.

2. Measure first impressions at the end of the interview

Whether the impact of first impressions is important for on-the-job success or not, it’s important to assess it when you’re not being seduced by it. At the end of the interview, ask yourself objectively whether the person’s first impression will help or hinder on-the-job performance. If you can wait that long, you’ll discover that in many cases your negative reaction to a candidate is due to the person’s temporary nervousness or something unimportant. As important, in just as many cases you’ll discover there isn’t much substance behind those you initially perceived to have a positive first impression.

3. Conduct a phone interview first

Bias is reduced dramatically by avoiding the visual impact of first impression. A phone screen naturally shifts the focus towards work history and major accomplishments. As part of the phone screen find out why the person changed jobs and if the change was successful, and dig into the projects and the teams the person was assigned to and if these teams or projects are growing in scope and importance. If the above is positive and you invite the person for an onsite interview, you’ll be less impacted by his or her first impression.

4. Shift your point of view 180°

Assessing team skills before individual strengths is another way to minimize the impact of first impression bias. You can do this by first conducting a work history review and asking this team question followed by the fact-finding questions shown:

Can you please describe a major recent team accomplishment?

  • Who was on the team and what roles did they play?
  • When did the project occur and what was your assigned role? How did this role change during the project?
  • How did you get on the team and did you select any of the team members?
  • What were the objectives of the team and were they met?
  • What was your biggest contribution to the team? How were you recognized formally for this?
  • Who did you influence the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
  • Did you receive any formal recognition for being on this team like an award, promotion or being assigned to a more important team?

By itself, this type of question and fact-finding reveals a lot about the team skills of the person being interviewed. If you ask a similar question for a few other major team accomplishments over different timeframes you’ll be able to observe the growth rates of the person’s team projects.

This trend provides tremendous insight about the candidate. Growth in the size, scope, scale and importance of the teams indicates the candidate is respected and trusted by senior people in the company. How and why the person got selected confirms work quality, reliability, cultural fit, the ability to deal with customers, vendors and executives and if the person has developed a cross-functional and strategic perspective.

Delaying the yes/no decision for 30-60 minutes and asking everyone the same questions will help increase objectivity and reduce hiring mistakes. As important, by assessing team skills first you’ll quickly understand if the candidate is a top performer or not and why. This is how you confidently avoid hiring people you shouldn’t and hiring those you should.

How to Spend Less Time Weeding Out Low Quality Candidates (and Attract the Best)

Last week, I spoke with the VP of IT at a well-known company regarding improving quality of hire. He told me his interview process is first rate, they’re posting their jobs on all of the major boards and he’s upgraded his job postings to include videos, graphics and clever employer branding. Yet, the quality of people applying is no better than it was before.

The week before, I spoke with the head of talent at a major European company who voiced identical problems.

And, at a recruiting conference last month, the 750 recruiters in attendance considered their number one challenge to be improving their yield at the top of the funnel.

I told them all the same thing: Too many companies spend too much time weeding out the weak candidates, rather than attracting the best.

Then I offered the following advice for attracting the best people.

1. Use a different funnel

The best people will not apply, but they will engage with a recruiter or hiring manager on an exploratory basis.

2. Forget the skills

In your job post, describe the challenges and projects the person will work on, not the skills he/she needs to have. For the single most important skill, you can say something like, “Use your vast knowledge of high speed turbulent air flow to help increase the speed of the the Musk Hyperloop.”

3. Tell stories

Forget posting internal job descriptions. Rather than me telling a story about how to write stories, here’s an example of one.

4. Remove the pressure

In your messages, mention you’re doing your workforce planning for the next six months and would like to engage in a preliminary conversation to determine interest. This is guaranteed to double your response rate.

5. Replace employer branding with job branding

Lead with a compelling job title or email subject. In the first line, emphasize what the person will be doing and tie this to the ideal candidate’s intrinsic motivator. This concept jumps out in this email example. Employer branding is most effective for entry-level jobs, but it's not as effective for senior staff and management positions.

6. Eliminate the generic boilerplate

No top person cares about the hyperbole. Customize the recruitment advertising to the person you’re targeting and assume the person is not desperate to take a lateral transfer.

7. Sell the discussion, not the job

The best people don’t need to apply. That’s why you need a different tactic at the top of the funnel. The best one is to engage in a preliminary conversation about some future role.

8. Forget the box checking

There is not one high performing and highly satisfied passive candidate who is interested in doing more of the same. So don’t check their boxes. Instead, describe your biggest challenge and ask them if it’s of interest, and if so, ask what they’ve accomplished that’s most similar.

9. Offer a 30% increase

As part of your initial conversation, tell the prospect you’d like to find out if your opening offers a 30% non-monetary increase. Then look for it in terms of job stretch, faster growth, more satisfaction and increased impact. A 30% non-monetary increase is the minimum floor for attracting a top-tier passive candidate.

10. Try harder

You’ll need multiple emails and voice mails to get 50% of the people you target to call you back. Don’t give up until they do.

Attracting the best people is a critical first step, but only the first step. Recruiting, interviewing and hiring these people is what really matters. It takes about 10-12 very talented prospects to hire one great person. This requires exceptional sourcing and recruiting skills and the full engagement and support of the hiring managers involved. While challenging, when it comes to improving quality of hire, the effort is worth it.

The 6 Secrets to Grabbing Candidates' Attention When You Reach Out

Great recruiters know that waiting for people to respond to your job postings or emails won’t bring in the best talent. Instead, you need to narrow your focus by identifying 15-20 top-notch passive prospects who would consider your job a career move, and then recruit them.

Identify your ideal candidates

Finding these ideal prospects is the first step in the process. They need to be highly qualified and they also need to see your job as a true career move. For them a career move needs to be some combination of a bigger job, one with more impact, faster growth and/or more satisfying work.

To find these ideal prospects, look for people who are a bit different than what’s listed in your job description. For example, for a Controller position in a not so desirable location, I found people who were directors of accounting who might be willing to relocate to get the better title with more responsibility. For an IT director position in a high-demand market, I found people at larger companies who could be interested in moving to a faster-growing smaller company.

Next, try to get 40-50% of the people on your short list of ideal prospects through referrals. That makes it easy to get them to call you back. To get these types of great referrals, use a “reverse referral process.” Here’s how this works: First search on your first degree LinkedIn Recruiter connections to identify some ideal prospects, then get the referral and qualify the person. Even if you can’t recruit these people, you’ll still be able to connect with them and use the same reverse referral process to get some other ideal prospects.

Now, use the right messaging to get candidates interested

For the ideal prospects you’ve found who haven’t been referred, you’ll need to implement a campaign marketing effort to get 75% of them to call you back. That means you’ll need some creative messages to make the contact worthwhile even for those referred. Here are some marketing secrets to gaining their attention:

1. Have a compelling subject line

“Joe Smith asked me to contact you,” should get you a 100% response rate if the person has been referred. If not, something like, “Our accounting manager needs to get out of the numbers and make a difference,” should work since it describes the impact of the job.

2. Highlight the employee value proposition (EVP) in the first line

We used, “Get a seat at the head of the strategic table,” as the first line for an HR VP search. We knew this is the only way a top-tier VP candidate would consider relocating to an out-of-the-way Midwest location. It worked.

3. Forget the skills

Instead describe the two biggest challenges the person would face on the job. You might want to say something like, “Use your extensive knowledge of guidance control systems and GLISP to build an AI engine for our driverless factory forklift system.” The secret: Use your messaging to demonstrate how a person can use his/her skills to make a bigger impact.

4. Tie the job to some grander purpose

One of our clients included this in her emails and tweets - “Flight Nurses – Helping Save Lives Everyday” - and increased her response rate threefold in one week. She hired four outstanding people two weeks later. For a company with a weak Glassdoor rating, one recruiter counteracted with, “We need someone who can rebuild a shattered Glassdoor.”

5. Take the pressure off

Don’t try to sell the job in your email; sell a conversation instead. At last year’s Talent Connect, one woman told me she emailed 20 highly qualified engineering leaders saying she was in the process of preparing her workforce plan for the next year. By offering just to chat about these jobs, she increased her response rate to 50% overnight.

6. Have the hiring manager call or send an email

Get a VM from a hiring manager saying something like, “I’m very impressed with your LinkedIn profile. I’m (name) managing the (describe team) and would like to chat with you briefly about some upcoming spots I’ll be filling in the next month. The big focus of these jobs is (describe major challenge and importance).” This will triple your response rate.

It’s a waste of time to send hundreds of emails to people who won’t respond or are unqualified. Rather than trying to be more efficient, the real secret for hiring the strongest passive candidates is being different. And starting with a few great people and recruiting the heck out of them is how to be really different.